To certified marine investigators such as 30-year veteran Daniel K. Rutherford
, there are four classifications for a vessel fire: natural, incendiary, accidental and undetermined.
Rutherford, president of Ocean Marine Specialties in West Cape May, N.J., and a founding member of the IAMI, investigates about 150 marine claims a year.
"Most are accidental, many from electrical causes," he
"But with this economy there has been an uptick in suspicious fires."
The parties in an investigation are varied - law enforcement, private and public fire investigators, surveying and insurance - so one of the association's goals is to create a uniform method of examining any of the cases.
To that end, on April 19 and 20, Rutherford
and a team of IAMI members organized a marine fire investigation course in Sayreville, N.J., the first since one held in 2005 in Wells, Maine.
"That was the most fun of all," Rutherford
The goal of the exercise was to teach investigators a uniform, team-oriented approach to fire investigation, Rutherford
"One thing we all noticed was how quickly the fires went from small to out of control - it was literally just a couple of minutes," he
In a simulated engine fire, the instructors watched for several minutes while the enclosed engine room smoldered.
Then, as might happen in a real-life situation, the hatch was opened to douse the space with a fire extinguisher.
"As soon as we opened the hatch, the fire quickly grew out of control," Rutherford
"Most teams did very well," Rutherford
noted that the burns were very controlled and suppressed at a designated time and in a manner to leave as much evidence as possible.
In the real world, firefighters probably would blast a boat with water to rapidly extinguish a fire.
A high-pressure water assault can damage or destroy evidence.
"In other cases, investigators will come across a vessel that burned down to the gravel," Rutherford